Renowned editor describes work with Clinton, Heller

Acclaimed editor and publisher Robert Gottlieb didn’t want to call former President Bill Clinton LAW ’73 “Mr. President” while he was correcting the punctuation in his memoir, so he just went straight to “Bill.”

Over his career, Gottlieb has worked at publishing houses Simon & Schuster and Alfred A. Knopf. He has worked at the New Yorker. He has edited the novels of Salman Rushdie, Ray Bradbury and Toni Morrison, as well as writings by John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and Bill Clinton. It was Gottlieb who discovered Joseph Heller and helped turn “Catch-18,” the original manuscript, into the classic “Catch-22.”

At a Berkeley College Master’s Tea Thursday, Gottlieb perched on the arm of his chair so that the audience of about 50 could see him ­— balanced so that Berkeley Master Marvin Chun would be aptly positioned to catch him, he said.

“I turned from a boy wonder to an old fart overnight,” Gottlieb said to describe his journey up the career ladder.

Gottlieb described editing as a “service” to aspiring authors, and a laborious seven-day commitment only suitable for someone who loves to read books —luckily, a passion of his since age 4, he said. He said the popular image of editors as socialites is untrue, adding that his job only once involved cocktails at lunch — though he does not remember what happened for 24 hours after that event, he said.

Editing and building relationships with writers, Gottlieb said, is based entirely on tuition.

“In the life of the writer,” Gottlieb said, “you are a potent and symbolic figure — the judge, the professional.”

He called his relationship with Joseph Heller the perfect editor-author dynamic, and compared it to working with another surgeon on the same patient (the book). Heller did not resist any suggestions, he said, and the two understood each other as writers and people. But, he said, with other authors it was not so easy.

“For one author, if I’d told her that her book was the best thing I’d read since Anna Karenina, she would have cried, because it meant I liked Anna Karenina better,” Gottlieb said.

Before Clinton’s memoir, “My Life,” Gottlieb had never edited a political book. Gottlieb said he had to make it clear that he was in charge, but the two formed a close team and published a nationwide bestseller.

Over the years, Gottlieb said he has done much for his writers beyond tell them to delete chapters of their books; he has brought hair curlers across half the country and reasoned with drunken wives, among other things.

While an editor’s first duty is to an author, Gottlieb said, a publisher’s is to the book. Describing his work in the business, he said the publishing world is unpredictable. For example, he turned down Amy Tan’s first book, the award-winning “The Joy Luck Club,” because he did not think it would sell.

Three students interviewed said they were impressed by Gottlieb’s eloquence and quick wit.

Cole Florey ’14 said he enjoyed Gottlieb’s personal anecdotes.

“I really enjoyed his down-to-earth and realistic approach to his work,” Clarissa Marzán ’14 said. “It was a privilege to hear him speak.”

Later Thursday evening, Ike Silver ’14 said he didn’t understand Gottlieb’s literary prominence until he went back to his room and saw his publishing companies’ insignia on half of his books.

Gottlieb finished the Tea on the subject of reading.

“People need to read books,” he said. “We need to hold them, have them, cherish, read, and turn the pages. That will never change.”

Yale University Press recently published a book Gottlieb wrote, “Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhardt.”

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